PITTSFORD -- There wasn't exactly a moment of truth, but there was a moment. It came when Aaron Williams burst from his safety position toward the line of scrimmage to stop a running play during Monday's practice at the Buffalo Bills' training camp. Ready to greet him was left tackle Cordy Glenn -- all 6-foot-6 and 345 pounds of him.
Williams is six inches shorter and 146 pounds lighter than his teammate. You do the math.
First came the clack of colliding plastic. Then came the thud of Williams' body hitting the grass field hard at St John Fisher College.
"I actually was hoping for a flag on that play, because it was a clip," Williams said with a smile afterwards. "But, nah, I just went down. I wasn’t really worried about, you know, falling or anything in that nature. Just get back up and get ready for the next play."
He can only hope that will be the case after every collision from here on out.
In the meantime, there will be plenty of eyeballs watching for any potential damage. That's what happens when you're an NFL player, at a position that places a premium on your ability to put ball-carriers on the ground, returning from neck surgery and involved in football contact for the first time in nearly 10 months.
Rex Ryan was among those watching Monday, as the Bills wore pads for the first time since their Jan. 3 season-ending victory against the New York Jets. Williams was a spectator for that game and the previous 10 after suffering a recurrence of symptoms from a frightening neck injury he suffered in Week 2 against New England. While making a fruitless attempt to keep Julian Edelman from diving across the pylon for a touchdown after a short catch, Williams experienced temporary numbness through the entire left side of his body. He left a hushed Ralph Wilson Stadium in an ambulance. He came back to face Tennessee on Oct. 11, then was shut down for the season.
"Well, the first thing you do is play like you’re not interested," Ryan said of his thoughts as Williams practiced. "But you keep looking over your shoulder a little bit and see how it is, because that’s really it. We all know he’s OK, but he’s got to know it himself and it will be good."
Williams makes no attempt to hide the fact he isn't quite there yet. It's a step-by-step approach that began with simply adjusting to wearing pads again.
"It's been awhile since I've put them on," Williams said. "But, for the most part, I felt good about being back."
Ryan loved having him back. He was happy to see that he came away from the two-hour session with no apparent issues.
The coach knows there are more hurdles for Williams to clear.
"Now, the next thing is when he really makes a hit, face-up tackle, we’ll see how he is," Ryan said. "We all feel confident that’s going to be just fine, and we need him. He’s a tremendous talent and I love his enthusiasm. ... And with his kind of athleticism, it’s a big plus for us."
That's all well and good. But, at least for the foreseeable future, Williams intends to be cautious. If anything doesn't feel right, he's going to remove himself from the field. If it happens once or twice or even a few times in a given practice, so be it.
"Yeah, we’re just out here being smart about it," Williams said. "I would love to test it, but at the same time I’m not going to rush into it. So, there’s no point of having contact on it yet. I’m not going to force myself to do it.
"I mean, this is our first day in pads so, this is a long camp, we have a lot of time to worry about it."
The Bills have an intrasquad scrimmage set for Saturday. The contact is expected to be turned up several notches from where it was Monday, especially in a goal-line drill.
Tackling to the ground wasn't allowed Monday. It will be on Saturday. Williams knows that Ryan and the defensive coaches are anxious for him to participate, but he hasn't decided what he'll do.
"We’re not even close to that day yet," he said. "So, I’m just focused on day-by-day. Seeing how my neck feels because it’s new, you know. I was in helmets the first few days and now we’re back in pads, it’s putting more strain on my neck and my shoulders. So, just wanted to see on how I felt being back and putting those pads back on."
Williams isn't trying to put on a brave face. He's trying to be practical. He's looking at the situation through a broader lens than that of someone who wants to continue playing a game he loves -- doing a job that pays him millions of dollars.
But there are bigger priorities.
"At the end of the day, it’s my neck," Williams said. "So, of course, I’m going to worry whenever I see an open field and I know I got to make that tackle. But I haven’t had that situation yet for me to worry about it. Right now, I’m just making sure I know all of my assignments, make sure all my guys are in the right spot, and make sure every guy runs to the ball every play. Once again, when that situation happens, if I feel something, we’ll worry about it then.
"But until then, I can’t worry about it."